Misbah-ul-Haq’s hitch at the helm
Misbah-ul-Haq is the top run scorer for Pakistan in recent times © AFP
By Umer Rana
After the horrendous tour of England, Pakistan cricket was the well on its knees. The ugliest face of cricket, the fixing left them in doldrums. Salman Butt’s fall from the grace and Afridi’s refusal to play the purest form of cricket developed a severe leadership crisis in the side. Shahid Afridi led the side’s resurgence in the limited overs formats but the Test side was facing unprecedented leadership crisis. Ijaz Butt had appointed Misbah-ul-Haq the captain of the Test side — almost out of nowhere — to leave everybody flummoxed. In the ODI series against South Africa, Pakistan showed the signs of rising from the ashes but fell ever so short like in the One-Day Internationals (ODIs) in England. Misbah did the job by barely clinging on to draws in the Tests.
In New Zealand, Misbah did able to carve out a much-need triumph for the crumbled side but in the second, his refusal to take even the slightest of risk meant Pakistan shut the shop on almost a won cause. That safety-first approach has always outlined Misbah’s stint as a leader. In the meanwhile, the ODI side went to strength to strength to register an ODI series triumph in New Zealand and instilled some sort of hope for the World Cup. Afridi’s relationship with the chairman and the coach was attached to a thin thread, which meant the side’s captain was still a mystery till the eve of the mega event. Finally, Afridi got the nod over Misbah and quite rightly so. Pakistan tumbled in the semi-final, to an extent exceeded the expectations. The sword attached to a thin string finally fell in the West Indies trip to chop-off Afridi’s leadership stint and led to bitter turn of events of his retirement and the coach’s resignation.
As a result of all that, the limited overs captaincy changed hands and Misbah was the man at the helm of affairs of Pakistan cricket. As before, the side threatened to fell apart courtesy another fractious personalities clash, Misbah was the apt choice and probably the only choice at the moment. Still, to have a 37-year old could only have been a short term choice at best to only to groom a young captain; but in Pakistan, as it has been over the years, there is anything remotely close to a thing called “planning”.
Anyways, Misbah took the charge, and slow and steady brighter scheme of things started to appear. To shock many, Misbah’s approach remained cautious and safely first, which all of sudden driven Pakistan cricket into unchartered territory. Since Imran Khan’s era the approach has been built to kill, many a times bewilderingly suicidal, but hardly any Pakistan side since then knew the meaning of holding back. Misbah flashed back the days of Pakistan cricket to the 70s, when they used to step out with ‘not to lose’ intent and winning was almost an afterthought, once ‘not to lose’ goal was achieved.
Sometimes his laidback approach got to the nerves of the fans and frustrated the gallery. His so-called holding back approach did cost him too, after winning the second Test against Sri Lanka in United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2011, he seemed to be settled for a draw to eke our series win and it nearly fired back but rain on the last day saved the day to ensure a series win over Sri Lanka. Such conservative was his approach that he refrained to indulge the fringe players into the side even in the full Bangladesh tour.
The marquee moment of Misbah’s stint came in early 2012; the no. 1 came on their knees to plethora of Pakistani spin. On the turning tracks against the top-notch spinners the English batting order was a sitting duck. Hardly anyone managed to eke out even the method of survival leave alone scoring the runs. They were always vulnerable against spin but against Ajmal and Rehman they were exposed like flash to a lens, the batting just did enough to avoid any mishaps in materializing the white-wash. Misbah handled the spinners well.
The euphoria of slamming down the top Test side did not last long either, England returned the compliment with the whitewash in the ODI series. To be honest, the side was never settled and never looked like winning a single game even. More importantly, the series showed the first glimpse of seemingly never ending batting chokes. Following the ODI series, over banana peel slip in the T20 series meant Misbah striped off the T20 captaincy. 38 years old leading the T20 side with lacking a gear or two in his batting, it was a straight forward call.
Misbah lifted the Asia Cup in 2012, an achievement in itself that after 12 years a Pakistani captain got hand on the Asia Cup but it was more of ordinary show from Sri Lanka & India than Pakistan’s dazzling performances but again the glory did not last very long either, in Sri Lanka, Misbah’s men succumb to numbing ODI series defeat. The batting order repeatedly choked in the ODIs. Misbah served the ban in the first Test as the side slumped to humbling over 200 runs defeat and in the third Test with Misbah back, they barely got away with a draw. Apart from the early half of the second Test, Pakistan was hardly in ascendency in the series.
Misbah has always been prone to use his ace bowlers in the death overs, no matter the situation or requirement. Against Bangladesh twice in the Asia Cup, Ajmal and Gul snatched the games from Bangladesh’s grasp, then Bangladesh’s inexperience helped too but in the series against Australia, he made the same mistake of holding back Ajmal for the death but met with grave results in another series defeat. To be honest, both the times in the first and third ODIs, he did not have over much to defend but it was just enough considering the conditions, the attack at his disposal and the opposition.
In India, Irfan’s surge even bewildered the management; he was not in the side for ODIs but later on added to the squad. Irfan had a telling impact on the series; he did not have many wickets to show for that in fact, Junaid clinched the reward. Every time, he jolted the Indian top order with his extra pace and bounce to register a series win over India in India. Like all his tenure as captain, a success by a setback to bring back all the burgeoning hopes right down to earth. In South Africa, it was a free fall achieving new lows never witnessed before. The strategy and game planning was extremely obnoxious from the management. Irfan was left out for the Wanderers Test on the liveliest wicket on the tour, moreover, three different pacers were handed Test debuts in three Tests. In that team management, Misbah has been the lead man and Dav Whatmore had been playing more of solitary supporting role.
Hence, grilling Whatmore for all that was completely inept as the former players did. But Tanvir’s selection in the second has to be the most perplexing move of Misbah’s tenure; it seemed as if a club bowler was fielded in Test cricket. Tanvir bowled at 120 Kph; even the occasional medium pacers like Younis khan would have done better than him as a bowler. Along side him, Misbah’s ultra-defensive captaincy ensured Ajmal’s 10-wicket haul and the hundreds from Asad and Younis went begging. The series finally ended in stupefying whitewash.
In the ODI leg, Pakistan finally pulled back things a bit but the flabbergasting tactics did not end from the management. In the first ODI, they went with just two fast bowlers to go with three spinners; the venue was not Chennai or Colombo; it was Bloemfontein. With the pitches drastically improving for batting from the Tests, Misbah found himself in the purple patch with the bat after failing miserably in Tests. With the series tied, Pakistan gave themselves a decent platform for the first series victory in South Africa but Afridi’s rush of blood led to another batting capitulation and all the hard work done by the top was undone.
In the Champions Trophy in England, the batting order stumbled on its face. Misbah was the lone ranger fighting for the invaded castle amid several wounded soldiers of the batting lineup. Misbah batted out of his skin but it was as useful as tits on a bull for the team’s cause but it went a long way in securing his captaincy. At least, the rout broke the stranglehold of a few spent forces and made the way of few new faces, of which Misbah was quite hesitant to blood earlier.
In the West Indies, Misbah’s sparkling touch continued as did flummoxing team selection, even after having a pungent impact in India, South Africa and the Champions Trophy, Junaid warmed the bench and another inane medium pacer Asad Ali played ahead of him. Eventually, Junaid returned and showed his worth. Afridi also found his groove with the ball but Umar Akmal had trenchant impact while building on Misbah’s platforms to ensure a series win.
A head of steam that seemed to be developing in the West Indies burst apart in Zimbabwe. Against an absurd Zimbabwean side, they went down in the first ODI courtesy of an under-aiming batting effort. The humiliation went beyond the imagination when they surrendered to Zimbabwe in a Test. Again, a familiar batting choke and some eyebrow rising tactics against the wagging tail materialized the ignominy. Again Misbah’s batting might have failed to save the face of his side but it did end up saving his captaincy.
Against the odds, Misbah’s side overturn the top side in Abu Dhabi; the side found itself in alien territory with the openers heavily contributing but South Africa were clearly taken off guard against quality spin bowling on a turning pitch much like England. Without wasting any time the batting order came to its own in the next Test. South Africa returned the compliment with a crushing innings defeat. In the ODIs, the spinners had the Proteas on the ropes apart from de Villiers; they all looked like blind men groping in dark against spin. Almost every time but they were let off the hook to post decent totals while the batting order continued with their comedy of capitulations. The use of Irfan was utter pathetic and selfish, he was way over utilized which resulted in a severe hip injury and ironically, Junaid was left to warm the bench again.
In South Africa, against run of play, the side left everyone shell-shocked with a series over the hosts. It was the first win of a sub-continental side in the rainbow nation. Juanid and Ajmal snatched the second from jaws of defeat plus the youngsters blooded in the side showed their value first up. Amid the lacklustre show, it was an incredible accomplishment by Misbah’s men. In UAE, Sri Lanka bore the brunt of the side hitting its straps; they played by far their best cricket of the year. The batting order functioned like a well-oiled machine and Hafeez piled on runs in his desired conditions and bowling was not quite a problem ever. After failing to force the issue in the first Test, the accustom sag finally ushered in the second Test. In the last Test, out of blue, the side pulled off an astonishing run chase to level the series. The run chases and Pakistan are not often go hand to hand and fourth innings chases are even scarcer.
The campaign in the Asia Cup was slightly peculiar, the bowling attack went off the boil to an extent, against Sri Lanka, they went for plenty and Bangladesh took them to cleaners thought against India, they came to their own. The batting order struggled in general but a few sparkling individual performances of Umar Akmal and Afridi masked the blots. Afridi’s heroics took the expectations beyond moon but this side knows all too well to flatten them. In the final, somehow Misbah and Fawad resurrected the innings but still reached a below par total. Amid below par pace bowling, Ajmal’s spell was the only hope but he was neutralized by some baffling tactics from the skipper.
While the other sides have evolved or regressed in the last years or so, but under Misbah they have stayed where they were. Actually, a few times, they seemed to be taking a few strides forward but every time, it ended up in retrogression. With Hafeez’s resignation, the voices of Misbah’s removal gained amplitude. To his credit, he has taken the side to take-off position many a times but it never got flying, seems like its way beyond Misbah’s safely first approach to achieve that. Most importantly, to do well in a marquee event, captains need to come out their shells to take a few risks to which Misbah is almost tenaciously resistant. But considering the fragile batting order and trying conditions in Down Under, there is not much hope anyways. So, removing Misbah just nine months ahead of the mega-event would not do any favours, in fact, it will only add up another grisly precedent in already appalling history of tussle for the throne for the upcoming youngsters. It would be better off to start the rebuilding from scratch under a young after the showcase event rather being back another veteran for a short term.
(Umer Rana is an Electrical Engineer who graduated from NUST. A club cricketer from Islamabad, he fell in love with the beautiful game at the tender age of six. Wasim Akram’s Pakistan’s road to the marvelous triumph in the 1997 World Series, is his first cricketing memory. He is always up for a chat about cricket, captaincy and tactics)